When local filmmaker Jonathan Joffe went to the Toronto Burlesque Festival in 2009, he realized burlesque would be a good subject for his first feature film. He liked the vibe and the cinematic feel of the performances and thought a dramatic documentation of a burlesque show might do well on the film festival circuit. As he met and talked to members of the burlesque community, however, he realized that there were better ways to represent burlesque than making a movie about buxom ladies and musical strip-teases.
Many people’s experience of burlesque begins and ends with that cheesy Christina Aguilera movie, or, if they’re slightly more on the ball, Dita Von Teese. Joffe wanted to make a film that would pay tribute to the variety of characters that live in the burlesque world and show, rather than tell, audiences what burlesque is all about. So, instead of making a movie about a travelling burlesque show, he wrote a script about a troupe of Second World War-era burlesque performers who also happen to be elite Nazi hunters. The resulting film, Burlesque Assassins, is fun, campy and full of larger-than-life and exotically beautiful characters. In other words, it’s absolute burlesque.
“The goal wasn’t to recreate burlesque performances on film,” Joffe says. “The goal was to recreate the fun of a live burlesque event. I want to show the kind of craziness and fun and joyousness when you go to a burlesque festival. To recreate the imagination of the people who are involved in this industry.”
Joffe managed to get the script written and secured funding from Telefilm Canada and Superchannel, the latter of which will eventually air the film on cable TV. While the dollar amount was generous for a first-time feature, the budget was relatively low considering Joffe’s ambitions to utilize Hollywood-style production values. Joffe made it happen by hiring a local crew, many without experience, and convincing his cast of international burlesque stars to work for a modest rate.
“The crew is made up of all these people who are coming into their role on the film for the very first time and were willing to put in a lot of unpaid time and effort and energy in exchange for the credit and for really being able to do something interesting and unique,” Joffe says. “Film in this city either tends to be really low-budget drama, or if you’re really lucky, a Western that may have some money. This is really different, and I think something that really appeals to people’s imaginations.”
Joffe is banking that the project will also appeal to the public’s imagination. He says that burlesque is a uniquely attractive subject matter because unlike other forms of erotic entertainment, the form appeals equally to men and women. Joffe predicts that about 65 per cent of his audience is women, who enjoy the burlesque aesthetic because it’s sexy without being sexist.
“You’d have to pay me to get me to a strip club,” Joffe says. “I just find it tacky and awful. But I love burlesque. And the difference is that burlesque is what happens when the women are in charge, and they do a much better job. A burlesque show is an event, and the audience is part of the party. You’re not there to stand and gawk, you’re a part of something and appreciate the talent of the people there performing.”
Joffe is taking that spirit one step further by creating events that will play out more like a concert tour than standard cinematic screenings. He’s currently taking the film across Canada and employing local burlesque troupes in each city to create live shows that will take place before each screening.
“It’s a very rare opportunity to be able to screen a film in a structured tour like this in so many cities, without having to do it at the whim of a distributor,” Joffe says. “We’re not at film festivals where we’re one film out of 150 and we’re not at a theatre where it’s playing for a week. It’s one night at one time and one place and you need to be there to be a part of it. I get to throw a party that all of Canada is coming to.”
Joffe’s premier tour stops in Calgary on August 1, with two shows at the Plaza Theatre.